Solving the world’s hardest problems with Deep Tech: Request for Startups

By Ali Tamaseb & Matt Ocko 03.26.20

For almost a decade at DCVC, we have investigated and invested in a wide range of Deep Tech startups - companies that use highly technical and defensible solutions to attack the largest problems the world faces in industries that get measured in hundreds of billions, if not in trillions of dollars. Some of our companies like Zymergen, Pivot Bio, Planet Labs, Recursion Pharma, and Desktop Metal, have already made a large impact on our world.

Tackling the world’s largest problems takes more than just a handful of ambitious upstarts, and huge new challenges means new startups are needed. There are some areas we are particularly interested in seeing new or currently un-funded startups address with disruptive solutions. YCombinator famously published a list of challenges that they want to see startups tackling, and we thought we’d take a page from their book. The best way to commence solving these challenges is to make them public, so here’s our RFS for 2020:

1) Fighting Climate Change Consequences – Especially Fires

Climate change is one of the largest threats to humanity, impacting everything from our food supply to the air we breathe. It’s a problem so large that one startup could never make enough of an impact to solve it, but we believe there is a massive opportunity to create positive change. How can we avoid wildfires that have become one of the key problems in areas like California, Australia, Arizona and beyond? And how can we contain them faster? Similarly, there are new risks of flooding, tornados and other climate catastrophes – how can we predict and address these challenges through technology to create better outcomes?

2) Water Security

As the impact of a changing climate shows effects across the globe, water security will climb to the top of the list of problems we face. For years, global and regional water security issues have been top of mind for the U.S. Department of Defense as it makes decisions about conflict resolution and national security policy and strategy. It’s not hard to imagine a war fought over water in the near future. From much cheaper drilling of wells to mass desalination to filtration and membranes, what technologies can help stabilize our global water supply?

3) Food Security

Just like with our water supply, the changing climate has a drastic effect on our food security. Months of soaking rains devastated U.S. crop yields while extreme drought across 42 percent of India sunk farms into distress. And yet our world’s population continues to grow. No nation will be immune to the impact of an increasingly threatened food supply. There is a massive opportunity to solve this challenge through everything from alternative proteins to better fertilizers, farming techniques and more.

4) Cheaper Ways to Construct Buildings and Infrastructure

Construction and transportation infrastructure costs billions of dollars due to long timelines, the high cost of labor, and the high cost of transporting materials. These exorbitant costs are a roadblock to affordable housing and transportation. How can these challenges be addressed by using robotics or new materials? Are there new processes to build commercial and residential buildings, tunnels, bridges, faster and cheaper?

5) Discovering, Developing, or Extracting Materials

In most industries, we are still relying on materials that were discovered hundreds or thousands of years ago. In some applications, these materials don’t make sense anymore, especially now that we have the ability to develop cheaper novel replacement materials. Does your company have a process for discovering novel materials? Or how about synthetically developing wood, glass, cement, textiles, metals, and other critical materials? Or are you working on reshape the mining industry by being able to extract materials with less energy and less environmental damage?

6) Infrastructure and Solutions for the Emerging Renewables-Powered World

While we have made a lot of progress with renewable energy, the development of a robust infrastructure to support these new approaches has lacked. What can we do at not only the consumer level, but also the grid level, to rapidly power more of our society using renewable energy sources? How can solar systems be made simultaneously cheaper, more efficient, and more recyclable with fewer toxic components? Does super-critical steam from deep geothermal make more sense in some domains than compact nuclear and vice versa?

7) Infrastructure for the Future Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

Whether we like it or not, our streets and cars will soon look very different. But it’s not only cars that need to change. Our shift to fully autonomous and electric vehicles will require a corresponding change to our traffic infrastructure, consisting of everything from traffic management to parking, car wash and maintenance, and perhaps most importantly, charging unmanned autonomous vehicles.

8) Distributed, Supply-Chain-Resilient Manufacturing

In a world of increasing pandemic risk and potentially nasty regional wars, how does manufacturing become less centralized and less dependent on fragile global supply chains – while at the same time less expensive and more sustainable? Durable and non-durable manufacturing can be optimized from many angles to produce higher quality and cheaper items with the ability to share or form novel materials. Anywhere from metal, sheet metal, carbon-fiber composites, to flexible PCBs, to chemicals, to apparel, the ability to shape and form materials and components at high volume production is of importance – as long as it can be done in a town or even a garage without toxic materials and huge energy consumption.

9) Environmental Pollution

Study after study has shown us that pollution has a detrimental effect on our health and the environment. From dangerous smog in China causing ~1.6 million deaths a year to man-made noise causing high blood pressure, heart disease and low birth weights, to say nothing of its effects on natural ecosystems. Can we create viable solutions to absorb pollutants, eliminate dangerous chemical run-offs or reduce the impact of man-made noise?

10) Future of Industrial Biotech

Industrial chemicals are used in almost every industry, and the market is controlled by a few monopolies. There is a massive opportunity to compete with these monoliths – or even work with them – to develop new paints, coatings preservatives, cleaners – and the microbes that make them – that will have a massive impact on our lives.

11) U.S. Healthcare Cost Reduction

No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, it’s difficult to argue that the U.S. healthcare system is itself “healthy” given rising costs and increasingly limited access to care for many people. At the same time, quality of care remains among the most sought after in the world. From fully-automated pre-authorization to point-of-care diagnostics to systems for lowering administrative costs, how can technology help reign in these costs to democratize access to the U.S. healthcare system?

12) Fighting Antimicrobial Resistance

Years of reckless over-prescribing of antibiotics have given rise to resistant superbugs, creating one of the major public health concerns we face. We need new antibiotics, antifungals, and antiviral drugs and other methods to fight these super infections and stop pandemics.

13) Future of Sustainable Transportation

Logistics and transport are one of the largest costs of businesses and families, but also faster transit enables new economies and new types of commerce. How can we move cargo and humans across the globe faster and cheaper, and sustainably and safely in the face of rising energy costs, fragile supply chains, and violent weather?

14) Silencing Troll Armies & Computational Propaganda to Save Democracy

Social media has introduced so many benefits to our society – increased connections, the ability to discover new cultures and more. But alongside these benefits are challenges that were previously unimaginable and present an increasing threat to our society – from large-scale harassment to the perversion of global political systems through computational propaganda. How can we identify these threats early and create the ‘anti-viruses’ to bot-driven social attacks and propaganda machines?

These are just some of the areas we think about daily and which we believe represent a massive opportunity for positive disruption. This is not some opportunistic jump on the ‘climate tech’ bandwagon. For more than a decade, our team has consistently nurtured companies from Seed and beyond that are tackling challenges just like these every day.

If you have an A+ team and are working on solutions to some of these challenges – or others like them! – we want to hear from you. Reach out to 2020challenge@dcvc.com with:

  • A deck explaining your technology, how it uniquely solves the problem, ways it is differentiated from any competition, the challenges that you expect to face - like high capital requirement or long lead times to market - and your plans to address them, and detailed backgrounds on the team.
  • Any relevant academic publications by your team. We read and prepare in advance to make the best use of entrepreneurs’ precious time, and focus the discussion on what you want to accomplish, and how we can help, not flipping through slides.